Is One-Fourth of Your E-Mail Getting Lost?

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You probably know that spam is wreaking havok with e-mail systems, but you probably don't know how unreliable it's made these systems become.

A new report shows that most major Internet service providers (ISPs) shunt into end users' Junk Mail folders — or simply delete — about one-quarter of the corporate opt-in communications that their customers have requested.

That's a big number, and it's growing. The story of how bad the situation has gotten, and what people are trying to do about it, is important for every company that send messages.

Trash 'Em All and Let God Sort 'Em Out

The company that prepared the recent report is Return Path, a New York-based firm that measures e-mail performance. Its study, conducted during the last six months of 2003, shows:

ISP Performance Varies. Return Path examined the top 16 U.S. ISPs, which it says handle more than 80% of the e-mail addresses typically found in Corporate America's databases. Of those 16 ISPs, the worst 10 deleted or tossed into the Junk Folder (which few people read) about 25% of the business-to-consumer messages, the study found. The error rate ranged from a mediocre 21% to an astonishing 37% at these ISPs. The average "false positive" rate across all 16 ISPs was almost 19%, the report says.

Permission-Based Mail Gets No Free Pass. The study monitored 30,000 e-mails from more than 100 Return Path clients, many of which are Fortune 500 companies. All of the e-mails that were counted in the statistics were either opt-in newsletters that individuals had specifically requested or "transactional messages," such as confirmations of orders, according to Return Path executive George Bilbrey. No unsolicited e-mail or "spam" was counted in the study, he says.

A Few ISPs Do Better. The study found that some of the 16 ISPs fare much better in delivering requested e-mails into users' inboxes. Earthlink, a major ISP, correctly routed 93% of permission-based e-mails, according to the report — an error rate of only 7%.

To see the accuracy rate of each ISP that was tested, visit Return Path's download page. (This page requires you to enter a name, company, and e-mail address before you see the report. But you can enter made-up information for all of those fields, unless you wish to sign up to be notified of future reports.)

A Problem Without A Well-Defined Diagnosis

As good as Earthlink's 7% misrouting rate sounds by comparison to other ISPs, that number of requested communications being deleted or misrouted as "junk" is quite high. In a January 2004 scorecard of desktop spam filters, PC Magazine found that the best products misidentified legitimate e-mails only 1.6% of the time or less.

Bilbrey has conducted statistical studies of ISP e-mail deliverability periodically for two years now, and the news isn't good. "The percentage of mail going to the inbox has been down," he says, every time he's repeated the study.

Other observers indicate that the numbers they've found aren't necessarily equally bad for every company that sends e-mail.

Derek Harding, CEO of Innovyx Inc., a Seattle-based e-mail consulting firm, says, "Our rates are better." His company produces online newsletters for corporations such as Hyatt Hotels and Sony Computer Entertainment America. Innovyx maintains 260 "seed" addresses at various ISPs and carefully monitors them for any problems. His clients, Harding says, are extremely protective of their corporate images and avoid doing anything in their look or content that might even suggest spamminess.

What To Do About the Failure of E-Mail?

The difficulty, all observers agree, is that ISPs are flooded with so much spam every day that they are desperate to get rid of most of the messages that stream in. Extreme filtering methods are resulting in some extreme e-mail loss rates.

The problem has gotten so bad that e-mail protocol changes that could stop spam might actually be implemented as near-term as this year. I'll evaluate the top three proposals — the details of which aren't yet widely known — and give you my recommendations in this space next week.

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